Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 14, 2022 8:32 am 
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A sheltered son breaks away

The situation of Mama Boy brought back memories of the classic 2001 French comedy by Étienne Chatiliez, Tanguy. Xiao-hong (Kao Ko) is a sheltered young man, nearly thirty, who lives at home - but only with his mother, who is very bossy. And this is not like the posh bourgeois Parisian world of Tanguy. Meiling (Yu Ziyu), Xiao-hong's mother, works in retail. And rather than perpetually at university, Xiao-hong works in his uncle's tropical fish store. Xiao-hong is a strange, touching character who finds a unique way out. Director Arvin Chen has a fresh approach, but it is the performance, and the presence, of heartthrob Kao Ko that makes this film especially memorable.

Xiao-hong is a peculiar young man. He is tall and almost silent, and appears glum. In the trajectory of the film he will gradually open up and start to smile. He has been completely under Meiling's thumb. She is trying to find him a girlfriend, but when she sets him up on a dinner date, mom intrudes via smartphone and becomes an obtrusive third party present at the table and the girl flees from the restaurant with dinner untouched. As Meiling, Yu Ziyu risks being shrill and sometimes is, but the secret of Chen's comedy is that it stays human.

In Kao Ko's wonderfully restrained and surprising performance Xiao-hong is strange, mysterious, sad, but also very sweet. In his quiet containment there is a world of potential waiting to be let out. Yes, he's an odd creature, but he's presentable too, tall, poised, on the edge of "handsome guy."

It's Xiao-hong's cousin at the fish store who drives a wedge into the young man's isolation by dragging him to a "love hotel" to lose his virginity. Against his will he's pushed into a room with one of the girls, known as Apple, a specialist in virgins. When she starts to service him he immediately flees. But it's at once clear that he has liked the madam, Sister Lele (actor and pop star Vivian Hsu). And for obvious reasons. He's not awkward with her as he is with the restaurant date or the cute young woman who comes to buy fish because she's been told it will cure her insomnia. Sister Lele is a mature woman and also beautiful. In Vivian Hsu's excellent performance the audience finds Sister Lele attractive too, at ease and casually elegant.

And sad and problematic. But that comes later. Xiao-hong starts coming to the brothel all the time. He just sits in the room with Apple and then leaves on his motorcycle. Sister Lele of course hears what's going on, but she tolerates it, and Apple likes having such an easy customer. We know that he is living for the glimpses of Sister Lele.

As the world of Sister Lele's problematic son Weijie (Fan Shaoxun) comes into play it's jarring, a break in the gentle social comedy and a hint of danger and violence. Weijie is slick, handsome, confident, a con man whose unwise scheme selling knockoff wine is going to get him into serious trouble with dangerous loan sharks and with the law. He only sees his mother when he desperately needs to borrow money from her. The film seems to slip into a different, gangster genre. Weijie is a liar, a trickster, an angry man. Weijie and his mother make the relationship of Xiao-hong and his mother seem not so bad after all. When Weijie glimpses Xiao-hong's relationship with his mother he is angry and there is going to be trouble.

Chen avoids sentimentality in the relationship that develops between Xiao-hong and Sister Lele when he starts accompanying her to a dance bar, an old hangout of hers and learns a little about her past. But when he starts dancing around in the fish store - a memorable image of the tall young man and the sweeping, graceful movements - it tells us he's in love, a little delirious, transformed. She's a lonely woman and divorced her husband immediately after Weilie was born. Her trials with him make her time with Xiao-hong a comfort.

Xiao-hong starts haltingly dancing with Lele, staying out at night. His mother is not happy. He won't tell her what he's doing or introduce her to his new "friend." By now he is all focused on Sister Lele - he still calls her that, treating her with great respect and almost awe, which she cannot help to especially like. The movement of the film is that as Xiao-hong grows more confident and happy, but always restrained, with Lele and they have a great time dancing and he takes her home on his motorcycle, the trouble Weilie is in is correspondingly getting worse while Meiling is getting more angry at Xiao-hong's suspicious new independence. There is a subplot of Meiling's chorus and a male singer of the group who's interested in her, a retired police academy professor. This connection will lead to big trouble for Sister Lele when Meiling finds out who her son has been seeing all this time.

It is inevitable that this sweet comedy will move into disaster and some violence and end with disenchantment. It will end with Meiling's statement that she and her son have both learned important lessons. It would seem that Arvin Chen hasn't a mean bone in his body. the lack of irony of Mama Boy is essential to the unique quality that Kao Ko's subtly nuanced performance embodies as the lead.

This is the his third feature set in Taiwan and in mandarin for forty-four-year-old writer-director of Mama Boy Arvin Chen, who was born in Boston of Taiwanese immigrant parents and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, graduating from UC Berkeley and USC School of Cinematic Arts. After college in 2001 he moved to Taiwan and worked for Edward Yang, an interlude that had a decisive effect. He returned for film school at USC. His short made there, "Mei," won a Silver Bear at Berlin 2007, and his debut film Au Revoir Taipei won awards at Berlin, Deauville, and San Francisco. It will be interesting to see if in future he incorporates his American background into his films. A story in Taiwan News about Mama Boyreports that he has lived in Taiwan for the past decade. He is completing two other films and says that he plans "to focus on international co-productions."

Mama Boy, 94 mins., debuted at the Udine Far East Film Festival, and it opened in Taipei. It was screened for this review as part of the July. 15-30, 2022 New York Asian Film Festival at Lincoln Center. North American Premiere.

Saturday, July 16
3:15 PM
Walter Reade Theater

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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